There has been a lot of discussion about concussions suffered by football players especially concerning the long term affects on the player’s brain. Over the past few years, several retired players committed suicide while others passed due to complications from advanced dementia. Autopsies conducted on their brain demonstrated a degenerative brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that was responsible for cognitive difficulties and behavioral changes experienced by the players.

Through the use of positron emission tomography, or PET, has permitted researchers to identify the protein associated with CTE in 5 living retired players, a breakthrough that may influence long-term treatment for players diagnosed with concussions.

Unlike MRI or Cat Scan, which are tests that measure the structure, a PET scan measures brain function, that is whether the brain is actually working. PET is often used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer as well as traumatic brain injury. With traumatic brain injury, a patient is injected with radioactive glucose. The PET scan then identifies the flow of glucose throughout the brain. Areas of low glucose then identify areas where the brain is not functioning normally. These findings can then be compared to prior MRI’s or and/or other cognitive based testing to correlate cognitive impairment secondary to traumatic brain injury.

In representing clients who have sustained traumatic brain injury, this author has often had clients undergo PET scans to correlate client’s objective cognitive testing as well as subjective complaints of problems with cognition. When insurance company lawyers accuse my clients of faking injuries and symptoms, the PET scan has proven to be helpful, and sometimes necessary, tool in proving a client’s brain injury to a jury especially when the client’s brain injuries were not able to be detected by less sensitive tests such as MRI or Cat Scans.

The ability of PET imaging to identify signs of CTE in football players, while only in the beginning stages, may be encouraging as a means of being able to diagnose CTE in its early stages thus affording treatment before the disease progresses to the point where treatment is no longer practical. It also begs the question as to whether PET scans may one day be used to as an everyday means of testing for all people that sustain concussions.